Modern history


Mauna Loa

OVER THE LAST FEW DECADES, the Hawaiian Islands, known to Wilkes as the Sandwich Islands, had become the epicenter of American whaling in the Pacific. Five of six whalers that passed through Honolulu were from New England or New York. That fact, combined with the strong American missionary presence throughout the island group, made Hawaii one of the few places in the Pacific where the United States exerted more of an economic and cultural influence than her European rivals. But not even this most American of Polynesian communities knew what to make of the U.S. Exploring Expedition when the squadron arrived in late September 1840—especially when several hundred sailors, all dressed in white shirts and pants, with handkerchiefs around their necks, black tarpaulin hats on their heads, and Spanish dollars in their pockets, descended on Honolulu.

It was an ideal town for a sailor. Years of catering to the crews of whaleships had schooled the inhabitants in the fastest way to separate a sea-weary mariner from his money. Dance halls with fiddlers, prostitutes, and plenty of alcohol were open at almost all hours, and the Expedition’s sailors and marines quickly availed themselves of the local attractions. There was, however, an important difference between the Expedition and the whaling fleet. The sailors of the Ex. Ex. were proud to be representing the United States of America, and the more they drank, the more patriotic they became. A group of them procured a giant ensign and began to march through the streets of Honolulu, shouting, singing, waving the flag, and at every corner, pausing to give three hearty cheers for their native land. “It was glorious fun for them,” Reynolds wrote. “Two weeks liberty, plenty of money & their own masters. No wonder they went into such half-crazy excesses.”

Of these sailors, Charlie Erskine had perhaps the best reason to celebrate. For the last year and a half he had been struggling to teach himself to read and write. In Honolulu he wrote the first letter of his life. “Mother, Mother, Dear Mother,” it began, “While fair away a cruseing amoung the islands of the sea, I never, Oh no Dear mother, I never, never will forget to think of thee. By going to Mr. F.D. Quincy 25 Commercial Street you will get one hundred dollars from Your absent son Charlie.”

Soon after the Peacock’s arrival in Honolulu, Reynolds received his mail from Captain Hudson. “I got such a pile of letters and papers as I could scarcely carry—my arms were full,” he wrote. “I was completely puzzled, I did not know which seal to crack first, and after inspecting and turning and tossing I found it was no use to select and so picked them as I could.” After several delightful hours of reading, he turned in for the night. “All that I had learned was floating through my head,” he wrote, “and it was near 3 before I fell asleep.”

For Reynolds it was a joyous relief to know that his family was, as of ten months ago, “all well and happy and had not forgotten or neglected me.” He good-naturedly scolded Lydia for dashing off letters that “were not any too lengthy,” insisting, “There is nothing about Home too trifling to be overlooked.” During the long passage to Honolulu, he had begun to think about his standing in the navy, and he felt nothing but pessimism concerning the chances of his getting a promotion any time soon. “I shall be 30 years of age,” he wrote his family, “when, by the present method of filling the vacancies occasioned by deaths and resignations, I may be made a Lieutenant. . . . What a prospect is this! It is enough to drive one crazy.” But he didn’t want them to worry and assured them with characteristic cheerfulness, “I am far from being miserable.”


He gave his family detailed mailing instructions for the duration of the Expedition. Although Wilkes kept the future movements of the squadron “a profound mystery,” the officers generally assumed that they would spend the summer of 1841 surveying the Columbia River, then return to America via the Cape of Good Hope after stopping at Singapore. Reynolds had learned of three different routes for getting letters to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River—by way of Montreal, St. Louis, and New Orleans. After that, it would be a little trickier. “You must write by every chance to the Cape of Good Hope and to Batavia or Singapore, up to October 1841,” he directed. “Boston and Salem vessels are most numerous in the East Indian trade, and if you see none advertised, why be sure and send a package to the Navy Department and to the Lyceum at Brooklyn every month, and I cannot help getting some of them.” Finally, he wanted to be remembered to his youngest sister, now approaching three years old. “I send Elly some kisses,” he wrote, “and would give all my money for a sight of her sweet little face.”

By the time he reached Honolulu, Charles Wilkes had begun to emerge from the cocoon of sorrow, rage, and despair that had enveloped him since the death of his nephew. Forty letters from Jane were waiting for him. But instead of softening the jagged edges of his psyche, the news from home only made the bitterness of his recent loss all the more difficult to bear. Inevitably, he took out his frustrations on his officers and men. As early as the dismissal of Lieutenant Lee at Cape Horn, he had complained to Secretary of the Navy James Paulding of a “cabal” of officers that was attempting to undermine the Expedition. In Honolulu, he appears to have received a private letter of encouragement from Paulding that he interpreted as a carte blanche. “Cabals of discontented officers must be promptly arrested,” Paulding insisted, “and their leaders either kept in subjection or detached from the squadron, as it is not to be endured that the purposes you are sent to attain are to be defeated.”

In the months ahead, Wilkes launched into a virtual rampage, dismissing officers at a rate that outdid anything the squadron had seen since the detachment of the Relief in Callao. Lieutenant Pinkney, who had spent the last five months confined to quarters aboard the Peacock, was soon on his way back to the United States. When Wilkes discovered that Dr. Guillou had torn out several pages from his journal (claiming that they were of “a personal nature”), Wilkes took the opportunity to dismiss the surgeon, who would remain as an unpaid passenger aboard the Peacock. “[T]hey, of course, have complaints to make against me,” Wilkes wrote Jane, “but [they] are so absurd & silly that they will go to work in my favor & show how strictly I have maintained the discipline of the Squadron.”

When Joseph Couthouy appeared in Honolulu fully recovered from illness and expecting to resume his duties as conchologist, Wilkes acted quickly to remove the headstrong scientist, once and for all, from the squadron. Wilkes was convinced that Couthouy had been writing letters to Jeremiah Reynolds and others back in the United States that were critical of him. Soon after seeing a copy of the Niles Register that contained a letter from an unnamed participant in the Expedition who claimed that the commander of the squadron was “getting delirious,” Wilkes insisted that the conchologist turn over all his specimens and notes before returning to the United States. “Couthouy says he will publish [reports against] me when he goes home and all this sort of stuff,” Wilkes wrote Jane. “Be it so, he will find I am all marble as far as . . . his influence.”

Wilkes’s claims of invulnerability were more than mere bravado. It was extremely difficult for an officer to bring charges against a superior. He had to wait until the end of the cruise, which could be years after the incident, then risked endangering his reputation in the service if he still insisted on preferring charges. As a result, few subordinates went to the trouble of attempting to bring a superior to justice. This meant that captains and commodores were, in the words of a leading naval historian, “virtually immune to any serious punishment.”

But by dismissing so many officers from the squadron, Wilkes was creating a problem for himself. When the angry and disaffected officers returned to Washington, they would inevitably corroborate each other’s account of a commander run amok. Wilkes, on the other side of the world, would be unable to counter their claims. By the time the squadron returned to the United States, he would belatedly begin to realize that he had laid the groundwork for his own undoing.

The commander of the Ex. Ex. had yet another chink in his supposedly impregnable armor. Wilkes might wear the uniform of a captain and fly the pennant of a commodore from his flagship’s masthead, but the fact remained that the secretary of the navy still addressed him in official correspondence as a lieutenant. But none of this seemed to trouble Wilkes. Ever since Mammy Reed had predicted he would one day become an admiral, he had been driven by a sense of election. “[T]here is an all protecting care over me,” he assured Jane even before the squadron set out from South America, “and both you and I must strive to deserve it.” Like that other self-crowned hero of the age, Napoleon, Wilkes did not feel bound by the rules that governed most men, and it annoyed him that others were so slow to appreciate that destiny had earmarked him for greatness. When his replacement at the Depot of Charts and Instruments, Lieutenant James Gilliss, wrote him as a friend instead of a superior, Wilkes was outraged. “I am now of different flesh & blood from him,” he told Jane. “The idea of a Lt. in the Navy writing to me on terms of familiarity—that day has gone by and I hope you will carry yourself with all due dignity to these jackanapes and vulgar upstarts. . . . I cannot my dear Jeanie any longer think and feel as a Lieutenant. I am only opposed to them and goading of them to their duty.”

These are extraordinary words coming from a man who was still, by all rights, a lieutenant, suggesting that Wilkes was delusional if not delirious. But as Reynolds recognized, there was more than a little method to Wilkes’s madness. “I wish almost, that the plea of insanity could be advanced for him,” Reynolds wrote, “for his acts proclaim him to be either crazy, beyond redemption, or to be a rascally tyrant & a liar.” Wilkes’s unswerving belief in himself had led him down a dangerous, potentially catastrophic path, but his claims of being a captain were more than mere wish fulfillment. As always, he had a plan.

As the news of his many accomplishments reached the United States, he was convinced that the secretary of the navy would have no choice but to promote him to captain. In fact, Wilkes would later claim that both Paulding and Secretary of War Poinsett had promised him a captaincy before the completion of the voyage. As long as the promotion came through, he could safely return to the United States with his commodore pennant flying. By extending the duration of the voyage by a year, Wilkes felt he had made this a virtual certainty. “[I]t will enable me to add many [things] to increase the glory of the cruise,” he wrote Jane. “I shall certainly make it a brilliant one.”

That fall, a vessel from Mexico arrived in Honolulu with the latest news from the United States. Wilkes was pleased to learn that the discovery of Antarctica “was received with great Enthusiasm.” He was also pleased to learn that as of the middle of September Congress was still in session. “[ I ]f the American Nation could be depended upon,” he wrote Jane, “I should think they would have passed our promotions before the adjournment of the Senate.” In the meantime, he continued to conduct himself as if his promotion had already occurred.

If Wilkes felt free to oppress his officers, he was under even fewer constraints when it came to the sailors and marines. The Ex. Ex. was a nonmilitary operation, but a naval code of discipline still prevailed. Buttressed by the Articles of War, a naval captain ruled with what Herman Melville called “a judicial severity unknown on the national soil.” But there were limits. Unless formally sentenced in a court-martial, no sailor could receive more than twelve lashes. So far, however, this had not deterred Wilkes. Since the squadron left Norfolk, there had been no less than twenty-five instances in which men had received double the legal limit, and in Honolulu Wilkes’s enthusiasm for the lash reached new, appalling heights.

His decision in Fiji to add another year to the Expedition had created a problem. The sailors’ and marines’ terms of duty expired in November, and Wilkes was required to provide them with transportation home if they chose not to reenlist. After their raucous two-week fling in Honolulu, most of the sailors opted to remain with the squadron. Those who did decide to leave were replaced with native Hawaiians, who would be returned to Honolulu after the squadron’s visit to the Pacific Northwest. When it came to the marines, Wilkes adopted a different policy. The marines functioned as the squadron’s police force, and Wilkes knew that it would be difficult to find adequate replacements in Hawaii. He therefore demanded that they remain with the Expedition until its conclusion. When four marines refused to reenlist, Wilkes responded by placing them in solitary confinement in a rat-infested fort in Honolulu. Twelve days later, he cut their meager rations of taro and goat’s milk in half. A week after that, the marines, all of them in double irons and deathly pale after almost a month’s imprisonment, were brought back to the Vincennes. Wilkes asked if they were now willing to return to duty. When they refused, he threw them in the ship’s brig. Two days later he brought all four to the gangway and asked if they had changed their minds. After they once again insisted that their enlistments had expired, Wilkes gave each of them a dozen lashes, then threw them back in the brig.

Marines were in a peculiar situation when it came to flogging. The U.S. Army had outlawed the practice back in 1812; but it was still legal in the navy. This meant that a marine on land couldn’t be flogged; but if he should be unlucky enough to serve aboard a naval vessel, he, along with the sailors, must fear the lash. Three days later, Wilkes ordered the marines back to the gangway, where they were each given another twelve lashes. Only then, “for the preservation of their lives,” did the marines agree to reenlist.

Wilkes would save the most horrendous display of brutality for two marines and a sailor who had been tried by courts-martial aboard the Peacock in October. The marines had gotten drunk and threatened to kill Hudson’s steward along with several officers. The sailor, an Englishman named Peter Sweeney who had joined the Vincennes in New Zealand, had been guilty of a variety of outrages stemming from a seemingly pathological hatred of all things American. The punishment Wilkes chose to inflict on Sweeney would only strengthen his prejudices.

That fall there were nine American whaleships at Honolulu. When the American consul complained of the whalemen’s “unruliness,” Wilkes determined “to show the crews of all these vessels that authority to punish offences existed.” Sweeney and the two marines would be flogged “round the fleet,” in which a man was tied to a gallows mounted on a boat and towed alongside each ship in a squadron, where he received a portion of the lashes sentenced him by court-martial.

In the British navy, flogging round the fleet was regarded as “a diabolical punishment” and “the equivalent to a death sentence.” Precious little is known about its use in the U.S. Navy, primarily because it was rarely resorted to. But Wilkes, who appears to have taken an almost sadistic pleasure in punishing his men, described it as “the usual manner in such cases.”

When the time for punishment arrived on October 31, the Honolulu waterfront was thronged with people. The Vincennes was moored with her stern to the wharf, and thousands of natives, along with a sprinkling of American and European merchants and sailors, lined the shore. Many had climbed to the rooftops of the houses so that they could get a better view. The decks and rigging of the whaleships also provided good places to watch as a disorderly flotilla of native canoes jockeyed for position beside the Vincennes, the Peacock, and the Porpoise.

The ship’s launch had been fitted out with a platform of square gratings and a gallows sufficient to accommodate three men. Under the direction of Lieutenant Robert Johnson, the boatswain’s mate and several quarter-gunners prepared the prisoners for punishment. First, the prisoners’ shirts were taken off and draped over their shoulders. Then shot-boxes were placed between their feet as their ankles were tied to the gratings and their wrists were raised above their heads and secured to the gallows. The launch was brought alongside the Vincennes, where Wilkes, in full dress uniform, read the sentences: the launch would take the prisoners from the Vincennes to the Peacock and to the Porpoise; at each vessel, the men would receive a portion of their total lashes—thirty-six and fifty for the marines Ward and Riley, respectively, and twenty-four for Sweeney. With the order, “Boatswain’s mate, do your duty,” the punishment began.

As the quarter-gunners removed the shirts from the prisoners’ backs, the boatswain’s mate took the cat-o’-nine-tails out of its bag. After drawing the nine cotton cords of the cat (each of which ended with a knot or a lead pellet) through his fingers, the boatswain’s mate raised the cat above his head and brought it down hard across the first prisoner’s back. The bite of the cat was said to burn like hot lead. Not until the cat had fallen a total of 110 times was the punishment completed.

But the men of the Vincennes, all of them assembled at the gangway on the spar deck, were not finished with Peter Sweeney. When the blood-spattered launch returned to the flagship, one of the sailors handed First Lieutenant Carr a letter requesting that Sweeney be discharged from the squadron. Carr passed the letter to Wilkes with the recommendation that the men’s request be granted. After reading the letter aloud, along with the names of those who had signed it, Wilkes declared that “he was glad that they had manifested such a desire.” Sweeney, the blood seeping through the back of his white navy-issue shirt and with his hands tied behind him, was transferred from the launch to a small dinghy. While one man tied him to the thwart, another cut the eagle buttons from his shirt collar. Once Sweeney’s bag and hammock had been tossed into the boat, Wilkes ordered the men to give him “three hearty cheers,” to which Sweeney responded with three angry cheers of his own. A fife and drum struck up “The Rogue’s March,” and the dinghy was towed stern-first around the harbor. The boat was eventually taken to shore; Sweeney was cut free; and, with his bag and hammock in hand, the English sailor staggered across the beach before disappearing into the crowd.

Taking a special interest in the proceedings was a boy who had firsthand experience with Wilkes and the lash. “This example was set before a half-civilized people,” Charlie Erskine wrote, “who were just emerging from heathen darkness into Christian light! Well might it have been asked, ‘Where is our Christianity? Where is our civilization?’”

By November, the squadron had succeeded in surveying most of the islands in the group. Near Honolulu, they surveyed the Pearl River, which Wilkes predicted would one day be “the best and most capacious harbor in the Pacific.” Today it is known as Pearl Harbor. In the months ahead, Wilkes planned to send the Peacock and the Flying Fish to the islands to the west, including the Gilbert, Marshall, and Caroline groups. The Porpoise, on the other hand, was to sail to the southeast, back to the Tuamotu and Society Islands, where Ringgold was to survey islands that the squadron had not been able to visit during its first swing through the region.

While Hudson and Ringgold spent the winter sailing hither and yon across the Pacific, Wilkes would remain in the Hawaiian Islands. He planned to sail the Vincennes to Hawaii, the largest island in the group, where he hoped to “swing the pendulum” atop the huge volcano of Mauna Loa. In March, he would return to Honolulu to meet up with the Porpoise before departing for the Columbia River, where they would rendezvous with the Peacock and the Flying Fish in May.

In anticipation of the Peacock’s five-month cruise to the Central Pacific, Reynolds spent much of November purchasing provisions. “I had crammed every stow hole full,” he wrote, “& felt that I had no more to do, when on the last day of November, I was thrown into despair.” A day before Reynolds was to depart, Wilkes transferred him to the Flying Fish. In contrast to the Peacock, the schooner, now under the command of Passed Midshipman Samuel Knox, had been poorly provisioned. “I regarded with a sad stomach,” Reynolds wrote, “the very scanty supply upon which I was to depend while others [aboard the Peacock] were feasting on the bountiful store, which I had taken so much trouble to procure.” Gone were the days of falling in love with a schooner’s fine lines.

By December 3, Wilkes and the Vincennes were on their way to Hilo Bay on the eastern shore of Hawaii. Larger than the other seven islands of the group combined, Hawaii is also the youngest island of the group, having come into existence approximately a million years ago (a blink of the eye in geological time) and is made up of five distinct volcanoes. Of these volcanoes, Mauna Loa is by far the biggest. Its summit is 13,677 feet above sea level—over two and a half miles high—but this statistic does not do justice to the volcano’s proportions. Measured from the seafloor, Mauna Loa is more than five and a half miles high, higher than even Mount Everest and K-2. Mauna Loa is also astonishingly broad, containing an estimated ten thousand cubic miles of rock, making it the most voluminous volcano on earth. Indeed, Mauna Loa is so heavy that it has depressed the seafloor by almost five miles. Measured from its base below the seafloor, Mauna Loa is ten and a half miles high—almost twice the height of Mount Everest.

Prior to the visit of the U.S. Ex. Ex., there had been only three recorded ascents of Mauna Loa. The first unsuccessful attempt had been made in January 1779 by a party from Cook’s final expedition. Just a few weeks before Cook’s death in Kealakekua Bay on the western side of Hawaii, four men, including the American corporal of marines, John Ledyard, attempted to scale the volcano. After two days of climbing, Ledyard and his companions encountered a thicket so dense that they were forced to turn back. Fourteen years later, Archibald Menzies, a botanist with George Vancouver’s expedition, encountered the same thicket and also decided to abandon his attempt. Not until his third try, on February 1794, when he followed the advice of Hawaii’s ruling chief Kamehameha I, who suggested he approach the mountain from the southeast, did Menzies and three others reach the snow-covered summit. Menzies, an experienced and hardy naturalist, described the climb as “the most persevering and hazardous struggle that can possibly be conceived.”

Since Menzies’s ascent, which Vancouver failed to mention in his narrative of the expedition and which was therefore unknown to Wilkes, two other scientists—the Scottish botanist David Douglas in 1834, and the scientist M. Isidor Lowenstern in 1839—had reached the top of Mauna Loa. In both instances, dreadful weather conditions reduced the naturalists’ time at the summit to a few hours. Wilkes, on the other hand, intended to create a temporary observatory atop Mauna Loa. This required that he bring the necessary equipment and provisions, including the panels of his pendulum house as well as his cumbersome and extremely delicate pendulum clock.

Ever since the Frenchman Pierre Bouguer had conducted pendulum experiments in the Andes Mountains in Peru in 1737, scientists had been using pendulums, which measure the force of gravity, to determine the density of the earth’s more dramatic topographical features. Bouguer had found that the rocks of the Andes appeared to be less dense than the rocks of the Peruvian lowlands, thus becoming the first to realize that the density of the earth’s crust is variable. (Today these density variations are known as Bouguer anomalies.) Wilkes planned to take gravity readings not only atop Mauna Loa but at other locations across the island of Hawaii. If all went according to plan, his results would represent a major contribution to the study of the earth’s shape and density, known as geodesy.

Wilkes included the naturalist Charles Pickering and the horticulturalist William Brackenridge in the Expedition, but there was one scientist who was noticeably absent. The geologist James Dana, destined to pioneer the science of volcanology, had been assigned to the Peacock. It was an astonishingly self-serving decision on the part of Wilkes, who apparently did not want the talented scientist to overshadow his own accomplishments at Mauna Loa. (Prior to the Peacock’s departure, Dana had been able to make a brief visit to Hawaii, spending just a single day at the volcano of Kilauea.) For this particular expedition, Wilkes would have the island and its volcanoes to himself.

“I look upon [the climb up Mauna Loa] as being one of the great works of my cruise,” he wrote Jane. “It requires no small exertion to accomplish it, but I have not much fear if the naked natives will hold out against the cold of its summit.” As always, uppermost in Wilkes’s thoughts was what this “novel and arduous enterprise” would do for his reputation. When he returned from the top of Mauna Loa, he confidently told Jane, “No one will be able to take away my fame.”

Wilkes had employed the services of a leading Hawaiian missionary and doctor by the name of Gerrit Judd to organize the party of more than two hundred natives required to carry the equipment and provisions. Although the climb promised to be difficult, Wilkes was not about to go without some of the comforts he had come to expect aboard the Vincennes. His retinue included his steward, cook, his Chilean servant Juan, and, of course, Sydney. To make sure Judd had someone to talk to while he performed his experiments, Wilkes also brought along the American consul Peter Brinsmade. Since Wilkes had promised to pay him several times his annual missionary’s salary for his efforts, Judd was particularly anxious to please the man whom he deferentially referred to as “the Commodore.” Wilkes was delighted to discover that Judd had provided primitive sedan chairs for both himself and the consul, and he even sketched a drawing for Jane, showing him seated proudly on a parasol-equipped chair mounted on two poles shouldered by four natives. The Hawaiians, he told Jane, referred to him as “Komakoa,” or Great Chief, and “considered it a high honor to be thus employed.”

But even the normally humorless Wilkes recognized the absurdity of the scene. As he and Brinsmade took up the rear, the diminutive Dr. Judd led a procession that included not only two hundred native bearers, but also their wives, children, and mothers-in-law. In addition to the pendulum clock, which required ten men, the natives lugged a small cannon for high-altitude sound experiments, the panels of the portable house, boxes of miscellaneous equipment, tents, and untold numbers of calabashes of food and water. There was even a herd of livestock that included a multitude of goats and one large, rowdy steer. “Little Dr. [Judd] sprang upon his horse, a lame one,” Wilkes wrote Jane, “and off he hobbled full of importance & business as the adjutant of our party. I laughed until the tears came into my eyes. So would you have done.” For Wilkes, this adventure was to provide a much-needed diversion. “I [was] most contented,” he wrote, “by feeling I was getting rid of [the] ship for a month at least and all its cares, duties, noise, etc. etc.”

Since Mauna Loa is so wide, it is impossible to see the summit from its base; as a consequence, the volcano appeared to be much lower than it actually was. “From Hilo, Mauna Loa looks as if one might walk over its smooth surface without difficulty,” Wilkes wrote; “there is, indeed, so much optical deception in respect to this mountain that it served to give us all great encouragement.” Instead of marching directly up Mauna Loa, Wilkes planned first to visit the crater of Kilauea to the southeast. Although just over four thousand feet high, Kilauea (pronounced Keyla-WAY-ah) is the most active volcano in the world, and from Hilo, Wilkes could see “the silvery cloud which hangs over it by day.” As night came on, the fires beneath this pillar of steam gave the cloud a reddish hue, providing a haunting, almost biblical destination point for the climbing party.

The incline was not steep, but the coarse basalt over which they walked was making short work of their shoes, and Wilkes sent down orders to the Vincennes for additional shoes and leather sandals for the natives. Three days later, with Kilauea not far ahead, they reached the upper edge of a dense stand of trees. “[O]n turning its corner,” Wilkes wrote, “Mauna Loa burst upon us in all its grandeur. . . . The whole dome appeared of a bronze color, and its uninterrupted smooth outline was relieved against the deep blue of a tropical sky. Masses of clouds were floating around it, throwing their shadows distinctly on its sides. . . . I now, for the first time, felt the magnitude of the task I had undertaken.”

A group of ten sailors, including Charlie Erskine, Joseph Clark, and the quartermaster Tom Piner, pushed ahead to Kilauea. Erskine and his friends sat with their feet dangling over the crater’s edge, transfixed by the bubbling pools of bright-red lava, one of which sent up jets fifty to seventy-five feet in the air. Erskine estimated that the crater, known to scientists as a caldera, was “seven times as large as Boston Common”—about two by three miles across and a thousand feet deep.

A sailor named Bill Richmond began, in Erskine’s words, “to spin a yarn about the kind of purchase he could rig in order to hoist one of the big icebergs we had seen in the Antarctic seas so as to drop it into this volcano. What a sizzling it would make!” It was dark by the time the rest of the expedition arrived. Wilkes immediately voiced his displeasure with Charlie and his compatriots. “He called us a ‘pack of foolish virgins,’” Erskine remembered, “and said ‘I don’t believe you could find half a dozen landlubbers so silly as to perch themselves there.’” Wilkes ordered the men to move away from their dangerous roost and make camp for the night.

The next day Wilkes and Dr. Judd decided to get a closer look at Kilauea. An eruption in 1832 had filled the caldera with solid lava to within six hundred feet of the top. Later that same year, the middle of this new crater floor had collapsed, leaving a six-hundred- to one-thousand-foot-wide rim that had become known as the Black Ledge. It was now possible to use the Black Ledge as a kind of ramp down to the caldera floor. “The crackling noise made in walking over this crisp surface (like a coating of blue and yellow glass) resembles that made by treading on frozen snow in very cold weather,” Wilkes wrote. “Every here and there are seen dark pits and vaulted caverns, with heated air rushing over them. Large and extended cracks are passed over, the air issuing from which, at a temperature of 180 degrees, is almost stifling.” The Black Ledge’s sharp crust cut the men’s shoes, but it was Sydney that suffered the most. The pads of the dog’s feet were so severely injured that he would be lame for several days.

A portion of the Black Ledge had partially collapsed, and Wilkes and his party scrambled down the fractured pieces of basalt to the caldera floor. They were now close enough to the pools of lava that the soles of their shoes began to smoke as the tips of their walking sticks caught fire. Their guide warned that a lava pool could suddenly overflow in a matter of seconds. Wilkes judged it “one of the most horrible deaths . . . [to be] cut off from escape by the red molten fluid.” When one of the nearby lava pools began to percolate ominously, they decided it was time to retreat to the Black Ledge.

Later, Gerrit Judd would return to the crater floor of Kilauea. Wilkes wanted a sample from one of the lava pools for the Expedition’s collection, and Judd, always eager to please his leader, offered to give it a try, taking with him a frying pan lashed to a long pole. As a precaution against the tremendous heat, he wore thick woolen socks and leather sandals over his shoes, as well as gloves. He had worked his way down into a hollow that was between twenty and thirty feet below what Wilkes called “the great fiery lake” in the southern portion of the crater. He was climbing up black rocks that were so hot that his spit bounced off them as it would on a griddle. Above him he could see jets of lava shooting up twenty-five feet in the air and then dropping down into the lake. If the pool should overflow, he would be immediately burned to death. Quite sensibly, he ordered the natives in his party to retreat to higher ground. He was about to follow them when he heard a peculiar sound about fifty feet away. Instead of fleeing in panic, Judd went to have a closer look. “In an instant, the crust was broken asunder by a terrific heave,” Wilkes wrote, “and a jet of molten lava, full fifteen feet in diameter rose to the height of forty-five feet, with a most appalling noise.” Judd began to run for it, but realized that he was now under a ledge of rock, with nowhere to go on either side of him. The heat had become so intense that it was impossible for him to look in the direction of the lava; the rocks beneath his feet were shaking in anticipation of what he assumed would be another explosion of lava. “Although he considered his life as lost,” Wilkes wrote, “he strove, although in vain, to scale the projecting rock.”

By this time his native companions were in full retreat. Judd called out urgently for help, and one of them turned back. Judd saw the arm of his good friend Kalumo extended toward him over the ledge, but before he could grab it, another jet of lava rose up in the air above their heads. Scorched by the searing heat, Kalumo withdrew his hand. Judd cried out, and Kalumo once again put out his hand. This time Judd grabbed it and was quickly pulled onto the ledge. “Another moment,” Wilkes wrote, “and all aid would have been unavailing to save Dr. Judd from perishing in the fiery deluge.”

Even though he had barely escaped with his life, Judd refused to quit. The crater was now full of bubbling lava, and after securing the pole with the frying pan attached to it from one of the natives, he returned to the edge of the pool and dipped the pan into the lava. “The cake he thus obtained,” Wilkes wrote, “(for it resembled precisely a charred pound-cake), was added to our collections.”

Judd had been badly burned around his wrists and elbows and wherever his shirt had touched his skin. But his injuries were nothing compared to Kalumo’s. His “whole face was one blister,” Wilkes wrote, “particularly that side which had been most exposed to the fire.” Wilkes estimated that the crater that had almost claimed Judd was approximately two hundred feet in diameter and thirty-five feet deep and had filled in less than twelve minutes. In honor of the doctor’s heroism, Wilkes named it Judd’s Lake.

That night they all watched what Wilkes called “this mighty laboratory of nature” from the safety of the caldera’s edge. “The streams were of a glowing cherry-red color,” he wrote, “illuminating the whole crater around; the large lake beyond seemed swelling and becoming more vivid, so that we expected every moment to see an overflow from it of greater grandeur. . . . The sight was magnificent, and worth a voyage round the world to witness.”

Before they departed for Mauna Loa, Judd insisted that the natives’ family members, who had severely depleted the Expedition’s provisions, return to Hilo. It had also become clear to Wilkes that the natives, with just a tapa worn as a shawl, were not equipped to withstand the cold temperatures of the volcano’s summit. In anticipation of their inevitable desertion, Wilkes sent a message to the Vincennes to send up fifty men and a complement of officers, along with additional provisions.

Soon after leaving Kilauea, they reached a section of uneven ground that made it impossible for the natives to carry Wilkes’s and Brinsmade’s chairs. “My legs I confess regretted the change,” Wilkes wrote. He quickly became convinced that the guide, Puhano, who had led both Douglas and Lowenstern to the summit, had taken the wrong route. “I therefore, in company with Mr. Brinsmade, took the lead, compass in hand.”

By the end of the day they had climbed into the clouds. That evening the temperature dropped to 43°F—more than forty degrees lower than it had been at Hilo. By the afternoon of the following day, December 19, they were beyond the tree line. “All the ground was hard, metallic-looking lava,” Wilkes wrote. The featureless landscape made it difficult for them to mark a trail. Wilkes ordered his men to collect branches from the few shrubs they passed so that they might be used as “fingerposts” to designate the path ahead. By three P.M., they had reached an altitude of 6,071 feet. “[E]ven light loads had become heavy,” Wilkes wrote, “and those of any weight, insupportable.” They were desperately low on food, but water was now their chief concern. They possessed a mere six gallons for over three hundred people. Wilkes ordered them to make camp.

That night, the horticulturalist William Brackenridge, one of the most robust members of the Expedition, came down with what Wilkes termed “a violent attack of mountain-sickness.” Nausea and headaches are only a few of the symptoms of what is known today as hypoxia, a reaction to the reduced levels of oxygen at high altitudes that affects individuals without respect to their physical conditioning. Cold and dehydration are also known to aggravate the symptoms. That night, Wilkes wrote, “we all began to experience great soreness about the eyes, and a dryness of the skin.”

The natives were particularly hard hit, and many of them began to question Wilkes’s motives. “[T]hey never knew of anyone having gone up this mountain before,” he wrote, “and thought me mad for taking so much trouble to ascend it.” The next day was a Sunday, and Dr. Judd conducted a religious service. While several natives went below for some calabashes of much-needed water, Wilkes and his companions used the day of rest to acclimate themselves to the change of altitude. They also had the opportunity to enjoy the view, which in an age before recreational mountain climbing and air travel was unlike anything they had ever seen. Beneath them were the clouds, “all floating below us in huge white masses, of every variety of form.” Beyond and above the clouds was the horizon line, where the greenish sweep of the sea blended seamlessly with the “cerulean blue” of the sky. “The whole scene reminded me,” Wilkes wrote, “of the icy fields of the Southern Ocean.” Around three P.M., as the sun began to settle in the west, the clouds started to move up the mountainside, and “finally,” Wilkes wrote, “we became immersed in them.”

Soon after setting out the next morning, December 21, from what Wilkes called Sunday Station, the ascent became much steeper. “[T]he whole face of the mountain consisted of one mass of lava,” Wilkes wrote, “that had apparently flowed over in all directions from the summit.” The sun beat down on the black rock, and the men found their desire for water “redoubled” since the previous day. Wilkes had originally planned on using the snow at the volcano’s summit to provide water for his men. But the summit was still eight thousand feet above them, requiring a hike of two, perhaps three more days. Around noon, Wilkes called a temporary halt. “Most of the party were now lying on the rocks,” he wrote, “with the noonday sun pouring on them; a disposition to sleep, and a sensation and listlessness similar to that procured by sea-sickness, seemed to prevail.” Judd offered to climb ahead in search of snow, and Wilkes gladly sent the doctor on his way. For his part, Wilkes had no choice but to succumb to exhaustion: “I enjoyed as sound an hour’s sleep on the hard lava as I have ever had.”

They climbed another two miles before making camp near a large cave, which provided excellent shelter for the natives. This would become known as the Recruitment Station. As darkness descended, there was no sign of Dr. Judd. Fires were lit, and in a few hours Judd appeared, bone weary and with a snowball in his hands. He had climbed for about four and a half hours, roughly halfway to the summit, before he reached snow. He reported that the drifts appeared to be melting fast. It would require a long hard day of hiking if they were to have water the next day. That night, despite the grim conditions, Charlie Erskine and his fellow sailors made the best of it in the shelter of the cave, “singing, laughing, and joking, as if on a picnic party.” “Place the sailor in any situation you will,” Charlie insisted, “you cannot deprive him of his mirth and gayety.” Tom Piner, the elderly quartermaster and a devout Christian, told his young companions that they were now “as near to heaven as we ever would be unless we mended our ways.”

On the morning of December 22, Wilkes left Lieutenant Thomas Budd in charge of the Recruitment Station as he pushed on with a party of twelve natives and seven men, including his steward and servant. Throughout the day, the temperature continued to drop, and Wilkes kept the natives ahead of him so that they couldn’t desert. By the afternoon it was just 25°F and blowing a gale from the southwest. The natives were now in danger of freezing to death. Wilkes ordered them to deposit their loads in the lee of a nearby wall of rocks, then granted them permission to return to the station below. “[T]hey seemed actually to vanish,” he wrote. “I never saw such agility displayed by them.” Soon the natives on the trail below began to desert en masse. “The mountain became . . . a scene of confusion,” he wrote, “being strewn with instruments, boxes, pieces of portable houses, tents, calabashes, etc.”

Wilkes was left with only his guide and nine men. A snowstorm was coming, the temperature had dropped to 18°F, and many of them had become stricken with a severe case of altitude sickness. Wilkes described it as “a violent throbbing of the temples and a shortness of breath, that were both painful and distressing.” Although they found it difficult even to move, Wilkes ordered them to start building a shelter out of the coarse blocks of lava (which they referred to as clinkers) strewn about the mountainside. Soon they’d constructed a circular enclosure, with a piece of canvas serving as the roof. They hung blankets along the inside walls, “which I hoped,” Wilkes wrote, “would keep us from being frozen.” Wilkes’s steward had some tea in his knapsack, and after making a small but serviceable fire, they enjoyed what food they had. “The supper being ended,” Wilkes wrote, “we stowed ourselves away within the circular pen; and while the men kept passing their jokes about its comforts, the wind blew a perfect hurricane without.” That night the temperature dropped to 15°F. They were at an altitude of 13,190 feet.

Around four A.M., their canvas roof collapsed, dumping a large quantity of snow into the shelter. They did their best to restore the roof, but all of them were now extremely cold. “I need scarcely say,” Wilkes wrote, “I passed a most uncomfortable night.”

The next morning one of the men found a calabash of provisions that had been abandoned by the natives. After what the sailors termed “a comfortable breakfast,” they set out around eleven A.M. They soon discovered that the upper portion of the volcano was, in Wilkes’s words, “a mass of clinkers.” “[ I ]t . . . continued snowing in squalls,” he wrote, “with a keen southwest wind driving in our faces; the ground being covered a foot deep with snow, rendered it more dangerous and irksome to pass over such loose and detached masses.”

They reached the caldera of Mauna Loa in the early afternoon. Although not as active as Kilauea, the volcano’s proportions stunned Wilkes and his men: “The very idea of standing on the summit of one of the highest peaks in the midst of this vast ocean, in close proximity to a precipice of profound depth, overhanging an immense crater . . . would have been exciting even to a strong man,” Wilkes wrote; “but the sensation was overpowering to one already exhausted by breathing the rarefied air, and toiling over the lava which this huge caldron must have vomited forth in quantities sufficient to form a dome sixty miles in diameter, and nearly three miles in height.”

Wilkes had entertained hopes of descending into the crater that afternoon but quickly realized that the snow and high winds required them to make camp. By four P.M. they’d pitched a tent about sixty feet from the ledge of the crater. Since it was impossible to drive stakes into the rock, they used blocks of lava to secure the tent’s ropes. Once the tent had been set up, Wilkes ordered the men, with the exception of his steward and servant, to return to their previous encampment. Wilkes intended to spend his first night on the summit of Mauna Loa much as he did in the cabin of the Vincennes, accompanied by only his steward and his trusted servant Juan.

That night the storm picked up. “Our fire was dispersed,” Wilkes wrote, “candles blown out, and the tent rocking and flapping as if it would go to pieces, or be torn asunder from its fastenings, and disappear before the howling blast. I now felt that what we had passed through on the previous night was comfort in comparison to this. The wind had a fair sweep over us, and as each blast reached the opposite side of the crater, the sound which preceded its coming was at times awful; the tent, however, continued to stand, although it had many holes torn in it, and the ridge-pole had chafed through its top.”

The next morning they were unable to light a fire. With four inches of snow on the ground, Wilkes decided that the three of them should wait until assistance arrived from below. Around eleven A.M., Judd and Charles Pickering reached the summit. Judd opened the tent door and found Wilkes and his attendants wrapped in their blankets.

Judd had some bad news. All the natives had deserted. “I was glad to hear it,” Wilkes later wrote Jane, “for I could not help pitying their forlorn condition in such bitter weather. This put me in better spirits, greatly to [Judd’s] surprise. . . . I became merry, got something to eat and comforted myself that my sailors would be along soon and be all the help I could wish for, & so it happened.”

Over the next few weeks, a series of supply stations was established between the summit and the Vincennes that sent a steady stream of provisions and men to what Wilkes called Pendulum Peak. By the end of December, there were enough men on the summit to finish the construction of a virtual village comprising a dozen structures, each surrounded by its own stone wall, with a much larger wall encircling the entire outpost. Several days of fine weather greatly facilitated their efforts but also showed Wilkes the incredible variations in temperature encountered at this altitude—ranging from 13°F at night to 92°F in the noonday sun. For Wilkes, this was troubling, since his pendulum experiments must be conducted at a constant temperature. He must do everything in his power to insulate the pendulum house.

After erecting the house’s wooden walls, he placed a thick, hair-cloth covering both inside and out; he then surrounded the entire house with a heavy-duty canvas tent. But this did not provide sufficient protection. In addition to the fluctuations in air temperature, Wilkes became convinced that there was a “hollow tunnel or cavern” beneath the house that made it difficult to retain warmth at night. He decided to thatch the pendulum house, placing dry grass procured from Hilo between the house and the tent and over the lava floor. By January 5, he was satisfied that he could maintain a temperature of 40°F inside the house, and the pendulum experiments were begun.

Three days later on January 8, they were socked with another storm. “At 10 pm I was unable to proceed with the pendulum observations,” Wilkes wrote, “for such was the fury of the storm that the journeyman-clock, with a loud beat, although within three feet of my ear, could not be heard. I was indeed apprehensive that the whole tent, house, and apparatus would be blown over and destroyed.” Later that night the wind began to moderate, and by the next morning Wilkes resumed his experiments. Then, on January 10, they were hit with the highest winds of the Expedition.

“I will not say that I never saw it blow so hard,” Charlie Erskine later remembered, “but I never saw it blow any harder. For fear of some damage to the instruments we were ordered to run out and take them down. We had no sooner got them stowed away snug in their cases than our camp was struck by a terrific hurricane which raised the roof of the pendulum house high into the air and scattered its fragments on the sides of the mountain. The other house was demolished and several valuable instruments badly injured. Pieces of canvas from our tents, spread out as big as table-cloths, might be seen floating in the air. The wind was so violent that it was impossible to keep our footing, so we laid down and clung closely to the side of the mountain.”

As the sailors lay pinned to the jagged summit of Mauna Loa, they kept up their usual banter. “Amidst all this Jack had his jokes, you may be sure,” Erskine wrote. “You might hear one sing out, ‘I say, old gruffy, my lad, did you ever fall in with anything like this off Cape Cod? ‘No, my hearty, it even beats Cape Horn.’ Another would shout, ‘I’ve seen it blowing like blue blazes, but this is a regular blow-hard, hard enough to blow Yankee Doodle on a frying-pan.’”

The next morning, Erskine was astonished to see that “the Star Spangled Banner” was still waving from the flagpole. “I felt proud to know that my country’s flag . . . had been borne by brave men, north, south, east, and west, and waved to the breeze in as high an altitude as the flag of any other nation.”

The following night, after reassembling the scattered pieces of the pendulum house, Wilkes finally completed his experiments. Even though there was close to half a foot of snow on the ground, he resolved to assist in surveying the interior of the crater the next day, January 12. The wind had died to next to nothing and a brilliant equatorial sun shone down on the pure white snow. Wilkes made several observations with a theodolite, but as the sun climbed in the sky, he found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on his work. “The weather was still and calm,” he wrote, “and a deathlike stillness prevailed, which I dreaded to break, even by making a remark to my companions upon the splendor of the scene before us. The sight was surpassingly grand.” In the distance, sandwiched between the deep blue of the ocean and the white haze of the sky, were the islands of Maui and Kaho‘olawe. They also had clear views of the surrounding peaks of Hualalai and Mauna Kea. “I can never hope again to witness so sublime a scene,” Wilkes wrote, “to gaze on which excited such feelings that I felt relieved when I turned from it to engage in the duties that had called me to that spot.”

When Wilkes returned to the camp, he discovered that a party of forty natives had taken advantage of the break in the weather to climb to the summit. They had heard that Wilkes was willing to pay them well for helping to disassemble the village of Pendulum Peak and carry the equipment down the mountain. As the temperature began to plummet that evening, Wilkes realized that he had to provide shelter for the natives. The pendulum house was the largest building on the mountain, and after packing up the clock and pendulum, Wilkes ordered the natives to spend the night on the house’s bed of dry grass. He also ordered Joseph Clark to etch “Pendulum Peak, January 1841” into the lava. Clark subsequently asked that “U.S. Ex. Ex.” be added “in order that there might be no mistake as to who had been there.”

That night, Wilkes began to feel a peculiar sensation, “as if cobwebs had passed over my face and eyes.” As the pain in his eyes grew progressively stronger, his sight began to dim. He soon realized he was suffering from snow blindness, a condition in which the surface of the eye has been sunburned. Wilkes was convinced he would never see again. “I felt forcibly the horror of probable blindness,” he wrote.

He took some consolation in knowing that it had not afflicted him until after he had completed all his appointed tasks. Despite his sufferings, he insisted that they leave the next morning as scheduled, even if he had to be led down the mountain. Luckily, his condition began to improve, and he was able to put in a full day of hiking. By five P.M., they had descended all the way to Sunday Station at an altitude of six thousand feet, where they found “the soft and delightful temperature of spring.” “I cannot venture to describe,” Wilkes wrote, “the effect this produced on us after our three week’s sojourn on the cold, bleak, and barren summit.” Despite the improved weather, Wilkes was exhausted. Even after several natives had administered the “loomi-loomi,” described by Wilkes as “a gentle kneading of the limbs, which has a great tendency to restore the circulation, and relax the muscles and joints,” he remained “fairly broken down.”

While Wilkes and his compatriots had been battling hurricanes and altitude sickness atop Mauna Loa, the officers and men left on the Vincennes had taken full advantage of their commander’s absence. “Nearly all day the Ship Has Been filled with yellow Hores,” the taxidermist John Dyes wrote. A phonetic speller, the disapproving Dyes provided a graphic description of a typical day aboard the Vincennes at Hilo: “After [the Hawaiian women] Had Regaled themselves in the Wardroom & Paid their Respects to some of the Gentlemen Rooms in private tha Vissited the Steerage Where the Same Scene took place from those tha visited the men on the Birth Deck & the Black Cookes Wher the Same Biseness were carried on, tha then went back into the Wardroom & Steerage where the young Gentelmen as tha are termed gallivanted them around the Deck to the Laughter & Sneers of all hands.”

Reynolds’s friend Passed Midshipman William May, supposedly conducting observations ashore, lived for three months “in a straw hut by the side of a purling stream,” where, he proudly wrote Reynolds, his nights were spent “resting in the arms of a delicious little Kanacca girl, who first gave up to me her Virgin Charms.” Even the ship’s chaplain Jared Elliott succumbed to the island’s temptations. Instead of a native girl, Elliott’s attentions were directed toward the wife of a missionary. “If anyone had behaved to you as he has behaved,” Wilkes wrote Jane, “I should certainly have kicked him out of doors.” Elliott, whom May described as “a wolf in sheep’s clothes,” was eventually dismissed from the squadron and sent home in disgrace.

Although he was well aware of the chaplain’s transgressions, Wilkes appears to have remained oblivious to the illicit goings-on aboard his flagship. By the time he returned to the Vincennes in March, after completing yet another round of pendulum experiments, he was already looking ahead to what he considered to be the most ambitious and difficult part of the Expedition: the survey of the Columbia River.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!